Two events — one distant, one local — made my decision about what to write this week easy. The calendar made it a sure thing; Chanukah will have begun before most readers get to read this column.
The local event was a decision by the Edgewater Borough Council to move religious holiday displays, no matter how neutral-looking, from in front of the municipal building to a park site several blocks away. It will be the first time in many years that the displays, including a Chanukah menorah (or chanukiah), will not be seen by passers-by on River Road.
The distant event kept them sleepless in Seattle trying to figure out how a local rabbi became the grinch who stole Christmas when all he wanted was to give a chanukiah parity with a Christmas tree at a local airport — and threatened to sue to make that happen. Rather than give in to this demand (the rabbi was going to donate the 8-foot candlestick), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport officials pulled all the Christmas decorations. (Not to worry; they are back, and nary a chanukiah or even a dreidel in sight.)
Chanukah, as I have plaintively proclaimed in this space so often in the past (including in an earlier incarnation of this specific column), has taken on virtually all the trappings of Christmas, including strings of blue-and-white lights hanging in all too many Jewish windows; blue and white "Chanukah stockings" hanging in all too many Jewish homes; and the "Chanukah present" hanging out of all too many Chanukah stockings — or just appearing suddenly between the latkes and the sufganiyot; and even "Chanukah wreaths" (yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing) beginning to hang out on too many Jewish doors.
And, of course, there are those not-yet-ubiquitous giant chanukiot gracing public land alongside Christmas trees, in a joyous yet undeserved coequality.
About the only thing we do not have — yet — is some bearded bloke in a red Borsalino and candy cane-striped tallit flying onto our rooftops in his menorahmobile, looking for the chimney and shouting "oy, oy, oy."
At the heart of it all rests a central question: How should Jews relate to the non-Jewish world — and how should they not relate to it?
The Jewish way of continuing this column would be to follow the dictum of "acharon acharon chaviv," which loosely translated means that the last point is addressed first (as, in fact, occurred at the beginning of this column). It is more appropriate, however, for this particular column to "copy the gentiles," as it were, by addressing the Chanukah-as-Christmas issue first. That is because "copying the gentiles" is precisely the issue here. Judaism has been against doing so ever since Moses’ time.
Of immediate concern to him and to God, the ultimate author of the Torah, were the practices of Egypt and Canaan, the place from which Israel left and the place to which it was headed. Copying those practices is banned by Leviticus 18:3, which states, "After the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan, where I bring you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances."
Leviticus ‘0:’3 reprises the warning, after a fashion, while Deuteronomy 1’:30 offers us a reason for it — "that you not be snared by following them."
Not heeding this warning is one of the reasons God caused the First Temple to fall and the people to be exiled, says Ezekiel (see 11:1′), who quotes God as saying to Israel, "you have not walked in my statutes, nor have you executed my judgments, but have done after the practices of the nations that are around you."
These verses led to a class of rules and regulations usually referred to as "chukat ha’goyim," or laws and customs of the nations (meaning every nation but our own). The Talmud’s designation is darchei ha’emori, the way of the Amorites, in which the Amorites stand in for the nations. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67a and b for some interesting examples.)
True, we have and adhere to the principle of dina d’malchutah dina, the law of the land is the law, which allows "chukat goyim" to trump Jewish law in matters unrelated to ritual and practice. What halacha bans are laws and customs that are idolatrous in nature, or are based on a superstition that is rooted in pagan belief.
That is what is so disturbing about the proliferation of public chanukiot: It is clearly a mimicking of a religious custom of the gentiles — and it is the rigidly religious Chabad movement that is its principal proponent.
Cynics have argued that "business is business" and rules have a tendency to get bent out of shape when a good fund-raising gimmick comes along, but (in this case, at least) I prefer another explanation — that these chanukiot are meant to offer some comfort to us at a time when we are most made to feel like outsiders in our own communities. I know from personal observation, for example, how important these chanukiot are for many of the Russian Jews among us. For them, it is the ultimate symbol of the freedom they never enjoyed back in "Mother Russia."
Nevertheless, to the extent that these chanukiot are meant to mimic Christian customs, they violate Jewish law.
Besides, there is no equating Chanukah to Christmas. On the one hand, we have a minor Jewish festival that involves only one ritual — the lighting of a chanukiah, preferably in front of one’s door or, at least, in a window — and has no real religious significance. On the other, we have one of the two major observances of Christianity, this one involving the birth of Jesus and overflowing with religious significance.
There is no comparison, except that they fall at about the same time in most years.
We have our own major festivals — and they go unobserved by most Jews, according to every survey on the subject taken in the last ‘0 years. One, Shavuot, commemorates the giving of the Law and God’s one and only public appearance. It is the least observed festival. Chanukah, on the other hand, is very widely observed by the otherwise non-observant.
That is what comes from equating Chanukah with Christmas.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.